Florida Needs a Poet Laureate, But With Term Limits This Time

Because "there are a lot of elderly people and therefore elderly poets." And "they die."

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You would think that Florida, home to python-hunting contests and “Zombie” bath salt epidemics, would have a designated person to weave those stranger-than-fiction events into poetry — or just muse about the natural beauty of the Everglades or the palm tree-lined beaches. Well turns out that position is open, and a new bill filed by State Senator Dorothy Hukill on Oct. 18 would establish a law that provides a new framework for nominating state poet laureates and limits them to one four-year term.

Florida’s poet laureates have served lifetime, unpaid appointments since 1928 when the governor established the role via proclamation. Franklin L. Wood was appointed in 1929, but died shortly afterwards, and Vivian Laramore Rader served from 1931 until her death in 1975. Edmund Skellings, known for award-winning computer-animated poems, was appointed in 1980, but suffered a stroke that impaired his speech, making him unable to fulfill all of his official duties. And when he passed away on Aug. 19, 2012, Florida was left without a state poet laureate for the first time in 32 years.

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“They die, and there’s no process to appoint one,” says State Senator Hukill, whose bill SB 290 would ensure a smoother succession plan. The Florida Council on Arts and Culture would submit five nominees, who must be permanent residents and have achieved recognition for their work both in and out of the state. Then Florida’s Secretary of State would pass along three to the Governor, who would make the appointment. Past volunteers would be called State Poet Laureate Emeritus or State Poet Laureate Emerita.

“I hate to say this but in Florida there are a lot of elderly people and therefore elderly poets,” says Joe Cavanaugh, President of the Florida State Poets Association, which lobbied for this bill. It was decided that a four-year term limit was the most realistic option, given the length of the nominating process and the fact that the current favorite for the position is the 80-year-old poet laureate of St. Petersburg, Fla., Peter Meinke. Plus “in poetry these days, we’re trying to get with it and get more hip with the way we present our ideas and present our poems, so we want to keep the poet laureate fresh,” Cavanaugh adds.

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Today, forty-two states have state poet laureate positions, and some have term limits ranging from two, four, five, even seven years that may or may not have restrictions on re-appointment, depending on the state. Not to mention U.S. Poet Laureates, appointed over the summer by the Librarian of Congress, generally serve from October to May, though the Librarian of Congress can appoint them for a second term (and Robert Pinksy famously held three).

Hukill’s bill, filed for the 2014 legislative session, is the second attempt to create the Florida poet laureate position by law after the first version failed in the state senate’s education committee during the 2013 session. It’s worth pursuing because you are what you read, says Hukill, a former NYC public school teacher: “We all use computers, iPhones, and iPads to communicate now, which means it’s even more important at this time to step back and appreciate the arts, for part of preparing kids to better communicate and get their point across is [fostering] an appreciation for poetry.”